Tall, gangly and covered in spots; the giraffe is one of the iconic species of Africa. But a recent study has shown that what we previously thought of as just the plain, old giraffe is actually four separate species. These species are as different to one another as brown bears are to polar bears.
The findings, published in Current Biology, show that despite all looking rather similar, the four species don’t get it on in the wild. This being one of the more important criteria when it comes to defining a species.
A Southern savannah giraffe in Namibia. Photo by Patrick Giraud (Wikimedia commons).
“We were extremely surprised, because the morphological and coat pattern differences between giraffe are limited,” Axel Janke, geneticist at the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre, said. Strangely, despite being kind of hard to miss due to their size, giraffes are relatively understudied in the animal world. Playing in to why such a seemingly obvious mistake may have been missed.
The four new species are now separated in to the northern giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis), the southern giraffe (Giraffa giraffa), the reticulated giraffe (Giraffa reticula) and the Masai giraffe (Giraffa tippelskirchi).
With fewer than 100,000 giraffes existing in the wild, the finding comes at an important time according to the researchers. There are only 4,750 northern giraffes left, while the reticulated giraffe has a population of around 8,700. By splitting them in to their species, it is clear that the giant mammals are under greater threat than before.
“It makes them some of the most endangered large mammals in the world,” Julian Fennessy, of Giraffe Conservation Foundation, said.
So the discovery of four giraffe species rather than one will not only necessitate a whole raft of line edits in the numerous children’s stories about the gangly creature from Africa, it will give conservationists the opportunity to re-direct funds to the populations which need it most.